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I am a believer in pursuing one's passion and enabling others to realize their potential. Working with women and girls is my passion.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


It has been quite a while since I posted, yet I have been inspired by different occurrences, one in particular comes to mind.

We set out for a long trip to Brazil via South Africa on 26th November and much as we were looking forward to the conference on Youth and adult and learning ( confintea vi) we were also dreading the many hours of travel. The conference was to be held in Belem Brazil and it meant waiting for 15 hours before the next connecting flight to Sao Paolo from South Africa. As we checked out at the South African immigration my colleague from Kenya we had no idea how we would get accommodation as we were not familiar with the hotels nearer the airport so we decided to ask for help from the help desk. We were met by a smiling young woman, Lebohang! I learnt her name is Tswana and means ‘be thankful’ and for sure am thankful for having met her. The few minutes that she interacted with her were so powerful that I will not forget this young woman in a long while. She started chatting us, and took us to the place were we arranged for accommodation, to the forex bureau and all along acting in a way that made us feel that her work is means a lot to her. In the few moments we interacted talked about issues in Kenya and South Africa we felt like we had known her for a long time. She was keen on Kenya and thought Kenyan guys are dark and handsome!! (She is single!!). She was so easy to speak with that all our previous apprehensions of Johannesburg evaporated. She didn’t leave until she was sure that we were in safe hands. We finally got a cab to the guest house and surprising enough on our way back through the same route we met the same cab driver at the airport when we needed to hire a cab.
The courtesy and welcoming gesture from Lebohang marked a positive start to the journey in a foreign land in the amazons. It made me really appreciate the positive nature of human kind and how much we make life easier for others just by being there. Sometimes it takes only a few minutes, but these few minutes make a difference in the people’ lives more than we imagine. The two weeks I spent in Brazil and without understanding the commonly used language, Portuguese had a strong impact on me in feeling the sense of belonging that courtesy can bring. While many times I could barely understand what the people I was speaking to wanted to communicate, I can say for sure that I felt the courtesy and felt at home. It was interesting to try and catch a few words to at least order food, yet sign language worked wonders! Of course we settled more for the easier options, ‘frango / batatas fritas’ and felt proud that we know Portuguese (fried fries and chicken). The language was a barrier but the attitude was never hidden by this.
This made me recall an experience I had about six years ago while on a visit to Uganda. I met a young girl about 5 years and we became such friends were making the joke that I need to adopt the girl if the mother would even allow! For the full day that we were at the function in Kampala, I had a great friend such that when Kenyans were called to present something she wondered why I had left her behind and she joined in! interesting enough, I could not speak a word of Luganda neither could my newly found friend speak a word in English, nether was any of us gifted in sign language skills, but we connected as human beings.
These and other incidences got me thinking about courtesy and just being nice to people and the impact this has on them. I have been surprised when someone tells me something I did that touched them yet when I think of it, it didn’t cost me anything.

On the other hand, many a times we are in such a hurry to care for anyone. We have take friends and family members for granted since we believe we have no time for them. Sometimes in the spur of the moment, we are rude and say words that act at hurting others and sometimes never realize what harm we have caused. It is a choice we make.

As we approach the Christmas and New Year season, many of us take time to reflect back on the year. As I think back on the year and the many things that have happened to me, I can not help but realize how much people have touched my life in different ways. The simple courtesy, doing unto others what we would have them do for us works wonders, but how often do we recall this? This doesn’t require us to speak the same language for we already share the language of being human.

Happy season to all, may the good feeling that we experience and help others to experience during Christmas and New Year extend to the rest of the Year. Lebohang, thank you for being a friend to strangers!

Monday, November 16, 2009

It should not be her...

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented." Ellie Wiesel
As I sat across her on Friday last week (13th November 09), I wondered if there is anything I could say that would make it right. I wondered if there is anything, I could say that would make her know that I understand that I cannot empathize enough, but I wish I could. I cannot even claim to feel with her, to understand her, however much I try. Aisha had been in Kenya for some time, and I knew she had gone through a lot. I had wanted to see her, but I knew that I needed to fit her at the most appropriate time, not after work but a time that she would be comfortable traversing Nairobi. We had planned to meet for some time, but I seemed too busy to get the time. As I sat outside the one building that she had said she could trace in Nairobi, I wondered if she would come after all. I looked at my watch and being the time conscious person I am, wondered as I realised she was 30 minutes late. I tried to get myself busy, went to a Bata shoes shop, shopped for some shoes and went back to sit outside Hilton Hotel, and felt more uncomfortable. I tried keeping myself busy with reading, but this was not it, yet I could not leave before I saw her. If not today, it would take some time before I managed another free afternoon. I went to a coffee shop and just as well the waiters were slow in serving me and after ten minutes went to an ice cream shop, where I felt she would trace easily.

As I sat there savoring the ice cream, my mind was blank. What would I say to her? I had no idea, but I knew I wanted to let her know that I am there for her. I could not make out the conversation I would have with her, so opted to stare blankly as I wondered on the unfairness that she was going through. I had met Aisha in Addis Ababa during a two weeks training in December 2008 for the African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI). The participants were drawn from different countries in the East and Horn of Africa, and within the two weeks we bonded in sisterhood and had been in constant communication since then.

Finally, after waiting for close to two hours, Aisha stepped in. As I watched her step in, I could not help but look at the beautiful young woman and think, ‘you need some sunshine girl friend!’. Her face was almost white; I could tell she had not enjoyed much sunshine.

“I will share with you my sister”, she started and without many words, shared with me what had happened to her on that fateful day some 5 months before in her home in Somalia. She had been sexually abused and physically assault by people who are supposed to be protectors of the citizens; soldiers. She struggled for a long time, and it is a wonder she did not lose consciousness as the two repeatedly beat her with guns. It left her emotionally and physically traumatized. After receiving medical attention, she was transferred to a Kenyan hospital thanks to the organization she works for that has supported her throughout. Aisha had been working on promoting the sexual and reproductive health and rights for girls and women in her region, now she was suffering the same violence.

As we sat and started talking, I wished there is something more than a hug that I could do to help her. I was not sure if was saying the right thing, ‘you will be okay’…would she? It was difficult to see light at the end of the tunnel for her. I fully understood when she said she rarely left the house she was staying indoors and one could tell she does not have much sunshine for some time. The counseling sessions were doing her good, but it was still difficult, and only time, not sure what amount of time, would come close to healing her.

To add salt to the injury, her anguish did not end with the abuse that tore her apart physically and emotionally, but it the abuse was made worse by the social stigma. She was unwanted in her community and her children have to suffer not only the pain of having their mother away from them, but also the taunting of the neighbours kids (who had learnt from the adults of course) that something bad had happened to her. She is an abomination in the community hence even other children did not want to be associated with her children. Nobody would want to be associated with a sexually abused woman and her family! This made and still does make my heart churn, why should she be the one treated like such a shame and not her perpetrators, who are still walking scot-free and probably abusing many more women? My heart bleeds for her and other girls and women not only in her community and country but also all over the world. It is not ‘she’ who should be having with the label! Her children should not be stigmatised over and over again, the unfairness of it all. She should be getting support for crying aloud, not being scolded.

I could not bring myself to imagine what she was going through as she tried to figure how to end the ends meet in her for her young kids, yet the pain of her experience was still fresh in her mind. When would she go back home? When would she see her children?  Not only had her life’s dignity been torn apart, but also now, she did not have a place to call home. Her work with the girls in her community could not go on, for she could not go back home yet.  As we parted, I could only hope and pray that she finds the strength in her to continue moving on. I could only tell her that I hold her in my heart. I believe she will be okay, she has been strong so far, and she will pull through. Her life will never be the same but I was optimistic that she would make the best of her life, in time.

It is saddening that she is just one of the many girls and women who have been undergoing the same. Many of the stories go unreported and unknown to many apart from the survivors of the violence. Many women and girls live in constant fear, with their hearts bleeding in hurt, not speaking out, not knowing if anyone cares or understands. Their insides are torn, yet they have to keep up an effort to appear normal. In the African context, women are expected to persevere, and part of the expectation of a woman or girl is to have enormous strength, so how does an African woman or girl afford to break down? How does she speak out against her abusers without being labelled? Without having the world turn the table against her?

Many of us opt to keep quiet and not speak out. We opt to remain neutral, and just watch as evil continues.

Sometimes it gets frustrating and feel like the work is too difficult, but we can only do our best, a step at a time, and hope to put to an end similar kind of experiences. If everyone can do something small, in the small space they have, such experiences can be outdated. There is still a long way to go, but we cannot give up. I cannot give up.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

I have a story to tell...

“Can’t the whole world hear this?”
That is a question that I often ponder on in the process of my work among different communities. There is so much happening, yet the world doest seem to know what is happening as it never gets into the main world news.

The past two days have been an ‘aha’ moment for me. I have been attending the WWP (Women Peace Makers Program) writers’ forum. I first came across WWP in December 2007 during the first training on gender and active non violence for African women leaders. I have been involved in the program in different activities and training since then and I was excited to get invitation for the writer’s forum for the WPP alumni. As the sixty women and one man from about 21 African Countries gathered in the hall at Silver springs Hotel in Nairobi one could only see woman, but by the end of the two days, one could not help but see great women, with great stories to tell.
As the session started, it was clear that the main of the session was just one, to write our stories. As I listened I felt that I didn’t have any story to tell. As we began sharing in groups our different stories I felt that something was taking shape, the stories that different women told were so touching that I couldn’t look at any woman the same way once I heard their story. The emphasis on personal stories shaping the lives of African communities and literature was emphasised. By the end of the first day, we started writing our stories and as I opened a fresh page to start typing, I was not sure I had anything to write nothing glamorous or heart wrench. Surprising that, but once I started the first sentence, I could barely stop and found myself sleeping after midnight, not having finished my story! There is a story to tell after all.

It reminded me of the many great stories of women that I have listened to or read about, great stories of courage, suffering, inspiration, disillusionment……..all in a day’s work. Last year, I was engaged in capturing stories of courage of women, through my organisation. During this period I could not help but wipe a tear with every new story that I listened to or read about. I interviewed a few young women while others wrote their stories. The women who gave me their stories were all aged below 38 years, quite young. However the stories they told sounded like someone who had lived 101 years, and I was always amazed, “how did you manage all that” I kept asking each and every one of them.

The different answers given can be summarised as follows, “Because I am a woman and I have other women in my life and I have a belief in myself”

It became all clear; it was all about what women have been doing each and every day but it remains invisible. It all came back to support from other women in their lives. Each and every woman I listen to in my daily life always leave me having a different view of the woman in all cases, a very deep respect of these women. I wish the stories can be written over their faces so that everyone who encounters them knows that there is a story behind this woman. Many other persons, youth, men…are doing great things in their lives, and sometimes, as I look at a person on the face value I can not start to imagine what they have had to go through in their lives to be where they are.

When is sit back to listen to the news, I only hear a fraction of what is happening in the world and I feel that there are unrepresented voices that nobody will get to hear. My passion is to make life better for community members’ women and men, girls and boys and this can always happen if the voices of women are heard. I find peace and joy in the shared stories of life.

I have listened to many women and girls tell their stories and wondered how better the world would be if their stories were told. I feel privileged that even if I can not access international, national or local media houses, I can have a space online, where I can tell my story and the stories of other women with the freedom of knowing that I can be editor and the writer of my news.

I believe that every woman has a great story to tell, but many times women have remained in the background, their voices unheard. There is a story behind every woman, and the story need to be told. There is a story behind every yet many times we never get to tell them. How inspiring it would be for others if we can make our stories known. One’s life can not be captured in written, but just a fraction of it is inspiring enough to make changes in others lives.

I now believe more than ever, there is a story… that should not remain untold.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Too busy to live? Take time for your health

During this month of October I have thought about this topic and kept putting it off, yes it is breast cancer month, but why talk about it? It is scary enough and I writing about it doesn’t sit very well! After all it is said that we attract what we think…and write? I have only seen those affected by cancer talking about it, sharing their experiences. Like every woman, I just hope that I never get to do talk about it. But so does every woman, but the statistics are rising by day. My only close encounter with cancer is a friend, a young lady who died of cancer about 7 years ago when she was very young, 22 yrs. Prisca started having pains in her stomach and she was (wrongly) diagnosed with appendicitis and had had appendices removed. The pain continued and in the long run it was realise she had colon cancer. In her last days she was a great encouragement (yes she was the encourager!) to friends and family. She was so optimistic and despite the fears that her family went through trying to explain the reason (and seek solutions) for her suffering as some family curse or other issues that needed some un-natural interventions, she kept strong, with her faith in God growing every day. I remember her saying that “the doctors will slice up and cut my body, but they will never touch my soul”. She went through one operation after another with all the things that can go wrong going wrong and having to have another emergency all over to correct some error! She died happy, and though her body was very fragile, her spirit was as strong as ever!

October is the breast cancer awareness month and it has got me thinking, what do I know about this? I set out to read more on this and the information I have come across is intriguing. I wish to share the insights and stories that I have come across. Breast cancer is also found among men but rarer hence the experiences are of women. One of the most inspiring stories is of 31-year- old Josephine Muthoni, who had a mastectomy when she was just 21 yrs old. The worst part of it is that she didn’t have to go about this! [1}. Josephine, then a student at the university had the lump for over one year and when it seemed to be getting bigger so she sought for medical attention. The shocking news was given to her that the lump was cancerous. A mastectomy, (surgical removal of one or both breasts) was done and she lost one of her breasts. She went through a lot with society pressures and lack of empathy and while dealing with this entire drama she learnt to her shock that - the cancer that had been detected in the lump had not spread to her breast, meaning that the surgery she had undergone was not necessary at all. She didn’t have to lose her breast, but it was too late. She made up her mind not to concentrate on the loss anymore but rather have a life and continue with her education and be a doctor like she had wished.

Another young woman is Lucky Ndanu who was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy at the age of 22 yrs. She was determined to live her life to the fullest and hence she lives her life as normal as possible, with the regular medical check ups and medication. The emerging trend where breast cancer is increasingly affecting young women and men has been largely attributed to changing lifestyles — consuming over processed foods, too much alcohol and smoking coupled with heredity traits and now HIV/Aids[2]

Naum Ochweri on the other hand was not young when she went through her mastectomy as she already had children in the 30s. She shares her story (Daily Nation 7th Oct 2009) of how she refused to let cancer ruin her life. She didn’t even inform her family the extent of the procedure that she was going through. Surprisingly she says that losing her breast was not a big deal and that she still feels beautiful! Talk of internal perception of beauty!

These are just a few of the women who have had different kinds of experiences, mostly life changing as they battle breast cancer. The realization that one has this life threatening ailment always come as a shock. Cancer survivors further suffer the stigma associated with losing a breast. A breast is a very intimate part of a woman’s body and many feel that they are less of women when the loose a breast. This affects not only their physical body but also their self esteem and sexuality. "You don’t really know what your breasts mean to you until you risk losing them," says Ms Catherine Ngaracu, a breast cancer survivor[3]. She believes a woman is defined by that part of the body. For another survivor, Ms Caroline Mumo After having a mastectomy she stopped visiting relatives’ upcountry because she was labeled a witch for having one breast! What inhumanity. . In the streets she was met with strange stares and her husband started staying out late into the night! Many women, young and old tell the stories of their traumatic experience with breast cancer.

The greatest inspiration as I read these stories is the kind of stamina that made these women rise up and make something out of their situation and many have even started initiatives that aim to help fellow women. Elizabeth Ragui a breast cancer survivor knew that she wanted to something about encouraging someone with the disease when she was still in hospital undergoing treatment for breast cancer. [4] She particularly wanted to let more people know about how early detection could lead to a cure. Her organisation, Reach to Recovery Kenya, is a breast cancer support group that gives psychological support to breast cancer patients by visiting them in hospitals during and after treatment. They not only offer emotional support, but also practical information on getting through.

As we commemorate the breast cancer awareness month, the challenge is to remember that prevention is better than cure. There are several suggestions on how to go about this, but first and foremost is the monthly self examination. Women especially have to develop the habit of doing the self examination and seeking medical assistance whenever there is something ‘suspicious’. This demands an intimate relationship with our bodies, so that any change is noted. I came across some intriguing information that breast feeding is one curative measure! According to an article published in the Daily Nation [5] scientific findings show that young women who come from families with a history of breast cancer, and who decided to breast feed after birth, have a 59 % lower risk of developing the malignant disease. This is a wake up call for the women who opt not to breastfeed, it’s not only good for the baby, but for you too!
Nature has not been known to let us down. Extracts from a fruit tree found in many parts of the world have shown dramatic success in killing cancerous cells in the lung, breast, prostate, colon, liver, ovarian, cervical, breast, bladder and skin. The annona tree family has over 110 species mostly growing in the wild with the main ones being Annona muricata found in the Amazon rainforest and the Annona cherimola, which is grown locally and known as ‘matomoko’ in Kenya [6]. A study at the Catholic University of South Korea found out that an extract from the plant was 10,000 times more effective in killing colon cancer cells than the drug currently in use! There is definitely hope.

As we commemorate the breast cancer month, it is the duty of every woman to get the time for their bodies. The statistics of cancerous diseases are on the increase, and the lifestyle doesn’t help, coupled with the ‘busy life’ that we have got accustomed to. This is no excuse, we can not afford to be too busy to live!
We also need to support those who are undergoing the traumatic experience. Some simple gestures like not staring at a woman wondering why the flat chest on one side would do wonders to the women who keep feeling there is something wrong with them.

Take care of yourself this month!

Support someone!

Just, Do something.

Note: all links were viewed on 6th October 2009
[1] http://www.nation.co.ke/magazines/saturday/-/1216/666810/-/ay8dcoz/-/index.html
[2] http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/598328/-/u69qwe/-/index.html
[3] http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/InsidePage.php?id=1144008103&catid=442&a=1
[4] http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/InsidePage.php?id=1143998352&catid=499&a=1
[5] http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/660596/-/uncd5v/-/index.html
[6] http://www.nation.co.ke/News/-/1056/653232/-/umrtpa/-/index.html

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Until all women are free

"The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. " Susan B. Anthony

Last week, I was in a very animated discussing with one of my close friends that took a very interesting turn. He was of the opinion that the fight for women’s rights has neglected the boys and in fact boys and men are more in need of these interventions. The issue was on some violence that had happened, and there was no back up statistics to show that indeed more boys and not girls were experiencing violence; that more men are victims of gender based violence. The discussion was interrupted hence we didn’t come to some conclusion but not before I mentioned that I believe women all over the world have so much in common and hence ‘we will never be free until all women are free’. The advocacy on rights of women is not advocacy on violating men; this has never been the case. The truth is that due to power imbalance women are generally more at the receiving end.

Today (Tuesday 7th September 2009) as I travelled to work I couldn’t help but note various cases women’s rights violations that were highlighted in the media. Top on this is the story that has been in the limelight over the last few weeks of Lubna Hussein. Lubna is a Sudanese woman who was arrested at a Khartoum party on July with 12 other women and had faced the possibility of 40 lashes for wearing trousers deemed indecent. Ten of the women were flogged in July, but she defied this and instead opted for the court option. There has been a lot of public outcry on this and finally she was sentenced on September 7th.

The court ordered her to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds ($209) or a one month jail term. She refused to pay the fine, indicating that she did not want to "give the verdict any legitimacy" hence opted for the jail. She was later freed after one day. Mohedinne Titawi, of the Sudanese Union of Journalists, said the union had paid the fine to secure her release. Hussein's case was seen as a test of the decency regulations, which many women activists say are vague and give individual police officers undue latitude to determine what is acceptable clothing for women
[i] [i]. The refusal to pay a fine was in characteristic with her earlier actions where she opted to resign from the United Nation where she was entitled to immunity, but instead chose to face the Sudanese law. She says “I fight for Sudan’s future generation” in her article in The Star daily([ii])

Upon further flipping the pages of another newspaper, I came across another story of a young woman who is facing the wrath of her community in her bid to offer leadership. Amina Muhumed Sirat is the area chief of Meri Sub-Location in Wajir South in Kenya’s North Eastern Province[[iii]].  However the elders (read men) have driven her away as they wouldn’t have a woman as a leader! Amina was appointed to her position on 20th July 2009, as a Chief, a local administrative position, but she cannot even reside in her own home. She had to flee with her husband and son to the District Commissioner’s home. The fact that she has grown up in that area doesn’t help her in her Somali community where the elders have clearly rejected her. For her to have pursued her academics to a Diploma level in this stereotypical environment must have been quite a challenge for a girl, yet after all the efforts she is not able to make the difference she wishes in her community. She is qualified and hardworking, but that counts less, she is a woman, not a leader hence she cannot give orders in the community; that is the role of elderly men. Her gender and age stands in her way.

Kenyan is a signatory to many international protocols and conventions, and the constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens. Every person is entitled to certain rights – simply by the fact that they are a human being. They are "rights" because they are entitlements that you are supposed to be, to do or to have. When human rights are not appreciated, abuses such as discrimination, intolerance, injustice, oppression and slavery arise. Born out of the atrocities and enormous loss of life during World War II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created by the United Nations to provide a common understanding of what everyone’s rights are. It forms the basis for a world built on freedom, justice and peace[iv].

Men and boys also face discrimination, in different ways in different areas. However in Africa, most of the violations that women face are due to the patriarchal system which gives men domination over women. Culture is used to justify these actions and most of the times the cultural issues get mixed up with religious issues in some instances.  However, it is worth to note is that most of the violations of women’s rights have similarities in different regions despite the socio-economic and cultural differences. While Lubna and other women face the violations associated with dressing, many women in Kenya have faced these violations with different justifications. Some unlawful groups in Kenya have violated women in the name of ‘reserving the culture’ whereby women are forced to undergo female genital mutilation and banned from wearing trousers. There have been cases of women being stripped naked in public for ‘dressing indecently’. In October 2008, a pastor for a Church in Nairobi declared that trouser wearing was banned in his Church. On the other hand the counterpart in Nigeria of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) Pastor Enoch Adeboye, banned women from wearing trousers to church[[v]]. At around the same time, in (October 2008) South Sudan's president shut down a police investigation that had seen many of young women arrested for "disturbing the peace" by wearing tight trousers. The police officers had been rounding up young women in Juba for apparently disturbing peace by wearing tight trousers. "They were wearing trousers that were too tight, disturbing the peace," said Deputy Police Commissioner of Juba County Raiman Lege[vi].

The ripples went further in Uganda where in September 2008 there was uproar and long debate that permeated into Kenya when the Ethics and Integrity government Minister sought to have miniskirts banned “because women wearing them distract drivers and cause traffic accidents”. Nsaba Buturo told journalists in Kampala that wearing a miniskirt was like walking naked in the streets. "What's wrong with a miniskirt? You can cause an accident because some of our people are weak mentally," he said[[vii]]. The debate was live even in Kenya and more so the local FM radio stations with mostly male callers supporting this call.

In these cases the women and girls were seen as ‘leading men into temptation’ and men as the innocent victims, which in itself degrades men’s power of self control, while blaming women for any crimes committed against them. It has led to justifications of violence against women and especially sexual gender based violence where the women are blamed for the violations against them. Questions like “how were you dressed? Where were you going?” etc have deterred many women and girls from reporting cases of violation while the perpetrators feel justified.

Amina’s case is also not unique but women have faced this in different ways in different regions at various levels. While some communities in Kenya have allowed women to speak in public, this is also limited to some areas that are not seen as being powerful public spaces, hence women who aspire to be in top leadership face a myriad of problems more than the male counterparts. The stereotypes that assume leadership to be a male domain are still persistent hence women who break the odds are often given masculine names / connotations. The former ministry of Justice & constitutional affairs in Kenya, Martha Karua has been acknowledged as one of the great leaders in Kenya and was often referred to as ‘the only man in the government’. Those same words were used on a woman leader in the Kenyan history. Cierume was a woman from Mbeere who was very famous because of her perseverance and bravery. By the time the British came to Mbeere and Embu, Cierume had already established herself and become renowned as a leader of her community and a great warrior and was later made Chief by the colonial rulers. It is said that her name came from the name ‘mundu murume’ which implies ‘man/male’ since her great leadership and bravery could not be associated with femininity with women[[viii]]. 

The challenges that women in leadership faced and still face is associated with the beliefs that leadership is a male domain. In Kikuyu custom for example, there is a process for a man to be made an elder hence be welcomed into the ‘kiama’ by giving out a goat. Up to date it is believed that a man who has not given this is still a boy hence cannot chair or give judgments. This is one of the roles that Chiefs and Asst. Chiefs are expected to perform yet the ‘kiama’ is not for women. This therefore presents a quagmire for women who are appointed to such positions. A friend of mine, Mary who is a District Officer shared with me that her time working in a Division in Rift Valley province of Kenya was rough since they kept referring to her as ‘the girl’ hence she had to work extra hard and rely on the support of the male District Officer in order to fulfill her duties. These and other experiences bring to limelight the similarities in women’ issues across the globe. The spiral effects of abuse of women’s rights in one region to other regions cannot be over emphasized.

Susan B. Anthony quote therefore rings in my head, "The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. "

True no woman is free until all women are free, and the world will be a better place!


[i] http://www.reuters.com/article/africaCrisis/idUSL7656737?rpc=60
[ii] The star, Tuesday, September 8, 2009, page 15
[iii] North Eastern province is  a semi arid area which is highly patriarchal with high level of women’s rights violations
[iv] http://www.youthforhumanrights.org/introduction/index.html
[vi] http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSTRE4976YT20081008 
[vii] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7621823.stm 
[viii] http://maflib.mtandao-afrika.net/MAF060063/WomenInHistory.htm

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

I dream

I have a great role, and the world will be world be better when I do my part, that’s my belief.
While growing up, I was taught all human beings deserve a good life, but as I grew up I realised how far from truth this is. I remember one time I was requesting that woman who looked very needy be allowed to eat for free in a hotel! In my innocence I felt this was the way life needs to be after all the dressing showed that she couldn’t afford a meal; yet she was hungry! This was my sister’s hotel & I knew my sister would not mind. However, the person in charge told me “Sophie, the world is fair, one day you will understand” and with this life went on ‘as usual’ she went away hungry.
Have I understood? May be not, but I have ‘known’, and that’s why I still have dreams and I dream of a better world; where everyone in the community has equal access, opportunities and capacity to make decisions. This is a dream that I believe can partly be fulfilled in my world, in my community. I strongly believe that there is a way of bringing about lesser inequalities, that the woman I experienced so many years ago, and everyday should be able to get some food. I have a dream of communities where everybody has the space to exploit their potential to the fullest, women and men, girls and boys. I envision a society whereby individual’s worth will not be judged by their gender. My personal vision is that each and every day I make a difference, positive difference in someone’s life.
Yes, like Martin Luther King, I have a dream, a big dream.
There are many disparities in the community that need to be confronted in order to transform people’s lives. Each and every day brings to me more awareness of the disparities between women and men’s lives and the unfairness of this. I experience the unfairness too in different ways in different circumstances. For the vision that I treasure to be achieved there is need to communities and individuals to all participate in their own different ways, either in telling the story for the reality to be known or in offering alternatives, hence need to be empowered & their voices amplified. Women and girls in particular are disadvantaged where they often go unheard and hence I remain focused in the lives of women and girls which have been affected by patriarchy and where silence has been very loud.
I believe that I have a great role in amplifying the voices that are too silent to be heard in the busy world. I will not only be touching lives but also making the world know about life of people in my community. There is a lot of misconception about women and girls lives in Africa and hence the strength they have often go unnoticed. My role will therefore be to offer both positive and not so positive experiences of women which can touch lives of others in the world and as a result get information that can make African women’s lives better and more fulfilling.
Sometimes I feel my voice is too soft, too alone, to insignificant…to make a difference, but yet I dream. I dream of making a difference in the lives of many women and girls, men and boys.
This is my dream.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Born a feminist?

My friends and acquaintances all know that when there is a mention of women, gender, girls….my heart palpitate even more. Some have asked ask, why are you interested so much on women’s rights? Sometimes I just don’t have an answer, I just know, it can not be otherwise in anyway!! So why is my heart so there? Was I born a feminist or I just grew up to be one? And who is a feminist anyway? This is one term that women have really shied away from due to the negative connotation despite the fact that they are feminists to the core!

According to the Wikipedia encyclopaedia, “Feminism is a political discourse aimed at equal rights and legal protection for women. It involves various movements, theories, and philosophies, all concerned with issues of gender difference; that advocate equality for women; and that campaign for women's rights and interests”. With this definition, then feminist is the person committed to have this happen. To dismantle patriarchy and there is nothing apolitical about subjugation, it’s a political process and can only be dismantled in a political process.

The African Feminist Charter states that ‘We define and name ourselves publicly as Feminists because we celebrate our feminist identities and politics. We recognize that the work of fighting for women’s rights is deeply political, and the process of naming is political too. Choosing to name ourselves Feminist places us in a clear ideological position. By naming ourselves as Feminists we politicise the struggle for women’s rights, we question the legitimacy of the structures that keep women subjugated, and we develop tools for transformatory analysis and action’

Waoh, if that doest speak to me I don’t know what else would!! Even the US President, Barrack Obama declared himself a feminist in a T-shirt written ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ that is featured in the Ms. Magazine (http://www.msmagazine.com/winter2009)

So I’m a feminist? Of course! How did this happen? I may not answer that in one sentence, but many experiences through out my life have confirmed to me my conviction. I was born and brought up in a lucky family where the issues many girls face like being second fiddle to boys as far as access to education is concerned was not an issue. In fact my parents didn’t seem to distinguish boys and girls in many of the aspects including division of roles.

Going to school was the order of the day, and one of the things my dad old us was that one had to define their education path. He believed we can all make it hence he made is very clear that he was not going to sweet talk any school head if one failed the primary school exams but that whichever school one was admitted, one would go, money was not a problem! (At that time I believed my dad was a millionaire….school fees would be there! Now I know the struggles he went through to educate us). It didn’t matter if you were a girl or a boy, your marks spoke for you, in fact he believed that girls need to go to better boarding schools where they can get maximum benefit from the school.

He never listened to the village ‘advise’ ,like this neighbour who I remember vividly telling my dad there is no need to educate girls after all they would get married and go away! (Today this neighbour’s daughter is struggling as unemployed single mum with 2 kids no education, no job, not having gone past lower primary school education). My dad was so committed to education that at one time when my older 2 brothers and sister (RIP) were all in high school, and he was struggling to make ends meet and pay fees for all, there was a rumour that he had won a charity sweepstake scholarship! My mother who missed education in the colonial era and due to prevailing cultural barriers believed she would have done so well in school and hence believed in all of us, boys plus girls! I never felt the discrimination in the family.

However, the rest of the socialisation agents were not as supportive. Having grown and brought up in Mang’u a rural place in the then Kiambu District (about 40 km from Nairobi) the space was open for both girls and boys, but the social cultural attitudes especially in the schools were not always supportive. I remember feeling a sense of injustice for having to be treated as lesser just because I am a girl. I remember vividly when I was about 7 years old and in class 1 in primary school when we had prize giving for the best pupils. It was a special occasion since the District Officer (administrative officer was presiding on this occasion. Parents and other pupils were present so it was a big day as I waited for my prize having been top in my class. I even remember I had 396/400 marks, and as luck would have it so did a boy in the other class.

The prizes were given for the both streams combined so it meant we were tying at number 1 with this boy. Somehow the boy’s name (Mathias) came first….and so as I went for my prize I realised that the person reading out had (naturally) assumed I was second. This meant I wouldn’t get the cash prize that number 1s were getting!!! So, I spoke out ‘I am not number 2, I am also number 1’. There was some hilarious laugh as the Master of Ceremony repeated “the little girl (yes I was tiny) has said she is number 1” I didn’t think much of it (talk of a child’s innocence) apart from the attention it gav me “that girl”. As I think about it today, the MC must have assumed I was number 2 but anyhow, no harm, for the sake of this girl who thinks…. I made a promise to myself and that boy never defeated me again, let along a tie in same position for the rest of the primary school.

Fast forward when I was in class 7 (about 13 yrs) in the same school. We had a new class teacher (male) who was also new in the school. He declared that the current system of boys and girls washing the classes on alternate Fridays would no longer work. According to him ‘he had never seen boys wash classes’ so girls would wash through out!! The boys were exhilarated by the prospect of having Fridays free so that they can play!! I was not amused and despite the young age, I knew this was very unfair and unjust. Yes women’s subjugation is all about unfair, unjust treatment.

After some ‘consultations’ we decided that we were going to stage a strike! Yes at 13 yrs old and in that era….. We refused to wash the class when it was the boys turn and even though the teacher threatened us and demanded that we do that, we were not moved. He had to get us from the farthest side of the field where in solidarity we were playing together and after quite some argument the teacher gave in after caning us!!

Every day there are some unfair treatment of people due to the gender, sex, race, physical disability… you name them. Women are treated unfairly in different sectors, and patriarchy continues to stamp the authority on men and boys. I believe in God given rights and equality, right to be treated fairy, hence we all have to speak out and act where we can. For me, it is about women and girls. That is why my heart is, in the struggles and celebrations of women’s right.

Is it nature or nurture that I am feminist? Food for thought, but I am a feminist no ifs, no buts, no apologies for I believe the universe is not against women and will live for that. I love what I am, I love what I do. Are you a feminist?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Once again, who am I?

"Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." Mark Twain
The other day, as I reflected on this quote, I couldn’t help but wonder if sometimes the other way round is also true? Do people sometimes think much more of us that we really are? Or rather do people think more highly of me than I am? Or is it that I don’t take as much time in discovering myself?
Much as I might pride myself in self awareness, I still get shockers when people compliment me more than my expectations. What of last week when I friend who I had apparently mentored more than I actually thought wrote a one page thank you that moved me to tears? I had been encouraging this friend like for some time in different life issues but I didn’t know how much impact this had on him.
Other tiems I get shockers when I wonder if people are talking about me or someone else! Unfortunately this doesn’t come often as many people are not great at giving negative feedback….I am not good at it…
On the other hand I got discoveries into my own life that were rather revealing. Through a friend I got to hear about the Land mark forum and the great impact it has had on people’s lives. I was in a space where I was feeling quite discouraged in life, tired, fatigued….you name it and I felt this was something worth doing. As I walked to the exhibition hall of Sarit centre in Nairobi on the Friday 7th August 2009, I was expecting anther 20 or so people at the forum, only to find quite a swarm of people. By the time the forum started there were more than 200 or so people! As people got sharing about their lives issues it gave me more insight into my own life. It helped me discover myself in ways that I never had!!! This was refreshing.
From this forum it struck me that, yeah, I have to keep discovering myself each and every moment!! How exciting! I love the adventure that is my life that I am engaged in. The realization that I can be as great as I want to be is scaring, that I have a lot of work to do, then I realize, no need, just to relax and leave a moment at a time; for that is what life really is. I make many commitments to myself, and it is my responsibility to keep them.
So here I am, once again discovering who I am and enjoying every moment of it. Discovering also like Mark Twain said, I may not be able to change the people around me; actually nobody can, but I can change the people who surround me.
I am sure of one best friend, the one that has been here all the years of my life, and that is the person to please, to be honest with, to love – ME- Then the rest will sort itself out. This is the most challenging part, after all, I can not lie to this person!!!!
The great bonus is the people who believe in me, the people that I need to keep me close to as we grow together in this life of self discovery.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

A girl mother student

What a contradiction! Mothers are not girls, and mothers are not students! But alas that’s the reality, in Kenya and other developing countries. I couldn’t help thinking about the contradictions in life where a child is supposed to be bringing up a child as I interacted with some teenage mothers mostly from Mukuru slums in Nairobi today. I got a call on Thursday this week (2nd July 09) from a Lucy a mother of over 100 girls, or is grandmother to as many children?

I met Lucy earlier this year in the course of my work. Eventually we organized for a motivation talk and my friend Catherine accompanied me.

While we interacted with these young women, or rather girls, many thoughts went through my head which I kept pondering about and posing some questions to the others as we did our best to have a few words of advice to these girls. Looking at the 50 girls, there was nothing peculiar or unique about them. They were looking smart, happy and they were no different from other 12 year olds that I know; except for one thing, the babies crying. I was touched by the courage the faces displayed. We were welcomed by a show of unique talents by the girls. There was acting, dancing, modeling and even a display of acrobats!!! I was so impressed by these as one of the volunteers in the program, Diane kept saying ‘these girls have so much talent and determination but lack the means’. Some of them looked so young that, I wondered if they had experienced the joy of being a protected child so that they can know how to protect their own child. They struggled to listen and scribble some notes, participate as they also attended to the children seeking attention.

Sometimes you could catch some blank face of a child crying as the mother looked at her as if wondering what to do. “How does such a young mother love her child without thinking that the baby is to blame for her life’s obstacles? It must take a lot of courage and determination” I posed to Catherine, “and what could be the father of this child be doing right now? Is his life disrupted in anyway?” These are questions whose answers I may never know. In a country where the laws are sometimes not implemented and even worse when it comes to laws related to child maintenance, the girl/woman carries the burdens alone.

We held an interactive motivational session where we shared tips on setting goal and clear vision for life, overcoming obstacles, learning from the past and moving on etc. These were just 50 out of the over 100 young women and girls aged between 12-22 years from Mukuru who are under the Hope for Teenage Mothers’ (HTM) project. They participated quite well displaying leadership skills and esteem they must have gained through the project. Some of the girls later shared their life experiences that left us just amazed and touched. All those who shared had one thing in common, they difficult circumstances that they had faced led them to engaging in unsafe sex ignorantly or as the only means of survival, discovering they are pregnant and dropping out of school. It was not a choice they made but situations that forced the choices on them.

They were excited today as they were about to achieve their dream of getting an education through informal schooling that was to commence at the HTM centre next week!! One could not help but notice the excitement anytime the issue of school was mentioned. They looked so determined that I can only pray they will get the strength to complete the education at the various levels. They are required to have 2 hours of schooling every week day, not an easy task for a girl mother cum student!! A boy or girl at this age is meant to be in school for about 8 hours a day, in uniform, and do her/his homework in the evening. How does this girl compete with the others in the society?

As I quoted to them a phrase from my high school principal that has always spoken to me in different ways ‘there is no platform in life, where you will be able to give excuses as to why you didn’t succeed’ I could not help but add how unfair life can be/seem, yet there is always something at the end when we overcome the struggles.

The lives these girls are facing is not unique to them. Many girls face dilemma every day. Despite the laws allowing them to go back to school, many of them do not get the opportunity due to stigma or lack of family support and sometimes the family is not able to support the girl plus her child. Some girls are fortunate to get the support and empowerment that ensures that they do not find themselves in the family way. Others are lucky to have supportive family that supports them back to school. I am still awed by a relative who in the 80s when a girl falling pregnant while in school was not only a disgrace to her family but also all her relatives; when a girl going past primary school was not such a priority, he went against the grain. These were the days when ‘punishment’ for the man responsible was to marry the girl (God help) or pay some cattle or cash. He didn’t do any of this, not only did he welcome the newborn (his grandchild) to be brought up as his own, but decided to transfer her daughter to a boarding school where she finished her education!!! However, to date some girls have to drop out of school and suffer the consequences. Still some of these are lucky to get supportive groups and get to informal learning and make better their lives.

A lot needs to be done in mentoring girls and boys in order to prevent the recurrence of this. While some get into early unplanned pregnancy due to sexual violence or sexual exploitation in search of livelihood others are forced by cultural believes and practices.

As the girls from Mukuru start the tough task of being mothers and students, I can only wish them the very best and pray hope that this will be one among many other initiatives for the girls who have dropped out of school. More so I have the hope that more girls do not have to go through the ordeal of unprepared parenthood.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Breaking the rules....proud of the women

Some article in the East African Standard caught my attention last week (Thursday 24th June 2009) ‘women Women team breaks myth to win boat race.’ This really caught my attention as I had not visualized a boat ride by a woman, let alone a competition! May be it is because I have not heard this associated with women.
The paper went on to describe the joyful event that graced the community near Lake Victoria. Children, women and men cheered wildly as the teams rowed their boats in stiff competition.
There was rhythmic drumming as the women paddled swiftly and vigorously.
At the end of the one-kilometre boat race, Kasua Women Group from Gumbe, Samia District emerged the winners, defeating four other teams…needless to point out, male teams. I was impressed by the message that was sent out by these nine agile women aged between 20 and 45 yrs of age, the young and not so young I would say. They had not only broken the myth to participate in a sport considered to be a masculine sport, but had also excelled in the same.

Reading the article, I learnt that the competition was organised Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) at Siungu Beach, Bondo District. KMA used the occasion to educate local fishermen (yes ….men) on maritime safety.

"This water is our territory and I enjoy boat racing. I have engaged in it for the last three years," says Rose Oundo, a peasant, soon after rowing back to beach with her team at position one.

These women were racing in the greatest lake in Kenya, Lake Victoria that measures 68,800 square kilometres making it the largest tropical lake in the world and the second best fresh water lake. This is a very important resource not only for communities in this side of the country but also for any fish loving Kenyans. Boats and boat riding is associated with the main gainful activity in this lake and in the region where men do fishing for both small scale and subsistence use as well as an income generating activity. Fisheries sector is dominated by men at almost all levels and this domination together with lower status of women like it is in many cultures means that women have not benefited from this resource as they should. The participation and winning of women therefore in the race for me gives a very strong message to the women and girls, to the boys and the men, that, Yes we can.

I was not there to cheer these women, I wish I was! But I cheer them from afar since the step they have taken. The action will not only boost their own esteem but also of the girls who may have succumbed to the notion of ‘I cant do that…because it is not expected…” hence not living to their fullest. It will be a positive aspect to the socialisation of boys who may have been shown that ‘girls really cant…’. The gender division of roles has been so accepted in the society that it has been taken like it is inborn and natural. Recently, the Maendeleo Ya Wanaume popularly known as MAWE (Men Against Women’s Empowerment) gave some statistics on violence against men in the domestic arena. While the authenticity of the data remains for debate, one of the issues that they described as violence was men being ‘forced’ to undertake domestic roles that are meant for women!!!! While many argue that there has been a lot of empowerment of the girl and woman, the challenges remain rampant with the attitude of both women and men remaining unchanged largely. I was recently in a forum on reproductive health issues and one lady posed the question of “why don’t men also take precautions and also do family planning including permanent ones like vasectomy?” One gentleman jumped up and exclaimed “that is against our culture!!!”. The same gentleman thought that women can do any kind of family planning including permanently like Tubal ligation……this is not against anyone’s culture!!

While I like many of the cultural values, I also know that culture has been used to justify different behaviours and ‘going against’ this cultures has had many negative consequences hence there is need to rethink before claiming ‘that’s our culture’. Last week I learnt with sadness about Kate, a sister-in-law who has separated from her husband. Reason, she insisted on her first born daughter going to secondary school!! According to the husband’s family, their culture (not sure which particular culture since the two are from the same ethnic group but from different districts) doesn’t allow for girls to go beyond primary school!!! It doest matter that Kate’s brother was the one paying school fees. Kate herself never went beyond primary school as she got married early by her own choice, but she seems to have realised what she missed out, and is struggling to make amends.

Both men and women are sometimes or the other held bondage to some social cultural practices but have to learn when to break the ‘taboo’. The women broke the taboo and did the unexpected, so can we.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gender Festival: Beyond lamentations we celebrate

“Sometimes the smallest victories in life are more rewarding than the greatest milestones.”  Katie Kacvinsky

“Beyond lamentation”...those were the first words as title to Betty Murungi’s presentation in the context of healing, peace building and unity on the first day of the Gender Festival, the first ever for Kenya. Those words stayed with me as I recalled some of the discussions around the gender festival planning back in early 2008 when the idea of the gender festival was presented as borrowing a leaf from our Tanzania sisters. That was a time when the post elections violence (PEV) was still very raw spot for Kenya and hence there was the question of, do we have the energy for a festival? What is there to celebrate? However, in the long run we were all in agreement, things may look grim but there is still a lot to celebrate. In fact, it was felt that after the PEV, all the reason for a festival, for a celebration. Throughout the 3 days event, these words kept lingering in my mind.

The Kenya Gender Festival 2009 was organized by a coalition of organizations working on women’s rights and gender. This was done over a period of more than one year on and off. I recall being in the first meeting and how difficult it was to visualize this coming true. Finally the dream came to fruition when the festival took place from 3rd to 6th June 2009. By the end of the 3-day event I couldn’t help but say “it was all worth it”! The broad theme for the Festival was ‘Celebrating diversity and promoting equality’ quite relevant to our Kenyan situation where there are diversities of different forms but which should be to unite not separate us. Throughout the festival, the diversity was quite evident yet the synergy was evident. There were young and quite elderly women and men, students and professionals; some gave talks or engaged in thrilling debates or exhibited either material items or talent in songs, dances, skits etc.
The sub themes for the 3 days were
1. Healing, peace building and unity.
2. Movement building in diverse society
3. Men for gender equality

I experienced, (for the festival was just that, experiencing) both lamentation and celebration. There was lamentation in the various discussions and experiences that were shared by different women and men at various points; but in all cases there was light after lamenting, the joy and celebration for having survived to tell the story. I particularly enjoyed the diversity in which different organisations presented their sessions and exhibitions. Some were discussions, others were participatory drama,  or debates while others were academic papers; for sure we are rich in ideas and diversity!! The presence of men, despite being outnumbered was quite a plus in a Kenyan context where gender is equated to women’s issues and seen as a domain for women. It was particularly impressive to listen to male speakers, actors and presenters in different forums, and listen to the same messages of men in support of gender equality.

It was touching as women and men told their life experiences on different issues that touch them and all in the society. I listened as a young woman told her experience of being gang raped and experienced a lot of stigma that led to her becoming an alcoholic. On realizing that she has a life to live, she not only left the alcohol as her consolation, but also made it her duty to help other women who may go through such traumatizing experiences. She now runs a foundation that gives post rape care and counseling and has impacted the lives of many would be victims to become survivors. Another told of the story of being infected with HIV but living positively to only tell the story, but to also make a lot of difference on the lives of HIV positive people who still experience a lot of stigma. There was more than lamentation, there were celebrations!

One of the other high points for me was the presence of so many young women at the festival both as participants and also taking up different roles. The Young Women’s Leadership Institute hosted a young women’s village which was a great attraction for the young and young at heart. I was impressed by the energetic discussions that were sparked by participatory theatre. The singing and dancing from the young women is still lingering in my mind as I sing ‘I’m a woman and I will never ever fail…’ which became like an anthem. My joy is that seeing young women so much at the heart of the women’s movement gives more cause to celebrate, that the cause will never die.

The experience of the Gender Festival made me realize, that I don’t want the women’s movement, the crusaders of gender equality to speak with one voice, but to speak in different voices in one spirit, with the same message!!!

It is not easy to laugh and cry at the same time, to count losses and gains at the same time, to look out in the very dark night and see the bright stars, but that was what the Gender Festival was for me! Yes, beyond lamentations, we celebrate.

We have come far and Aluta Continua!